Major Revisions to Mini-Me Nutrition
I see you out there…all you parents trying to do right by your children. I see the work! We tend to want better for our kids than we had ourselves growing up. So often, we do more for our kids and put ourselves last. But when it comes to healthy eating, it may be unsettling to consider where we may be (unintentionally) doing less for our kids than we do for ourselves.
Few things make mama prouder than knowing that she’s raising happy, healthy kids. But the path to a child welcoming a plate of leafy greens isn’t without some potholes for most. As a health coach and with 25 years of experience in the industry, I’ve seen many parents wanting to help their children eat healthier but not quite knowing how to go about it.
I’ve been there myself. Twenty-two years ago, I thought I was doing the right things for my four year-old son, AJ. I thought it was a great idea to give him some autonomy and choice when going out to restaurants. “Let’s let him choose for himself,” I said to my husband. And we did. Too many times! I cringe to admit that we fell into the “we’re-too-busy-so-let’s-just-hit-a-restaurant-tonight” category four to five days per week.
Our top three staples rotated between a local Italian pizza place, Chili’s, and sports bar with 28 TVs and at least that many cheese-covered entrees. How we didn’t all end up extremely overweight remains a mystery, though I remain crystal clear about the moment that our frequent flyer miles at restaurants halted.
We were at a friend’s house for dinner, and I watched her four-year-old daughter diving into a plate of grilled chicken, corn on the cob, mixed bean salad, and roasted broccoli. With. No. Pushback. My son, served a similar plate, sat down in the usual position: one butt cheek on the chair, one off, and foot on the floor ready to make a quick exit – the definitive position of an active boy! He politely tried a few bites of chicken, sampled one bite of corn, and pretended to not see the rest. He gave me a look – that look - that said, “Where are the fries?”
That telling moment let me know I had been doing things wrong. Sure, my intentions were in the right place by encouraging him to order with manners and make independent decisions. But his dad and I let things go too far – to the point at which I could count on one hand the typical foods that he ate: chicken fingers, French fries, corn dogs (UGH, I know!!!), cheeseburgers, and spaghetti. If you are thinking what I thought in that moment, you are correct: not one green food existed on his list. Mom fail!
They Might Know What They Want, But Not Necessarily What They Need
That’s where our jobs as parents come in.
I filed this example in the category, “SAVE CHILD FROM HIMSELF.” Of course, I wanted him to be healthy. Of course, I wanted him to have some say in his choices. Of course, I wanted to teach him well. But what was lacking at that time in his young life was more specific direction.
I set out to change the rules, but like any game, changing the rules mid-play isn’t necessarily welcome. Did you know that kids often require exposure to the same food a dozen times – or more – before they accept it into their menu? They may have all the time in the world to resist, though you have every [healthy] reason to persist.
Hey, Bus Driver!
You may be thankful for the commute you don’t have to make to work now or the long drop-off and pickup lines at school. That said, the drive-thru lanes and to-go food orders remain tempting options. (Y’all already know how I feel about drive-thrus – “If it comes through a window, it isn’t food!”)
So, if you’ve too frequently fallen into the trap of, “We got takeout because the kids wanted it,” take back your driver’s license! In most instances, you, the parent, is the one purchasing the food.
You are the one driving the vehicle to the restaurants or grocery store. And you can map out a better route to your child’s future health. You will be met with some (or maybe A LOT of) resistance to change, but somebody has to make the rules if their future health is a bright one.
Stockpiling for Success or Sabotage: It’s a Choice
It all starts with the pantry and fridge. You hear us at KK Wellness preach about those “three little words” when it comes to our own (adults’) health and wellness goals: environment, environment, environment. Kids are no different: set them up with a variety of healthy choices, and set them up for success in developing a healthier relationship with food.
If one of our coaches opened your pantry or fridge right now, how might you feel – proud to have stocked all the right things, or compelled to offer reasons as to why all of the “kid food” lives there? If the gap between “kid food” and “adult food” is a sizeable one, the right next step involves narrowing it. Moment of truth: they can be pretty similar lists.
Honestly, acknowledging the exact width of that gap is probably the toughest one. How differently are your children eating than you are? If it’s a substantial difference:
Limit the number and amount of less-than-optimal treats in the kitchen;
Put the healthy foods front and center in the pantry fridge, and specifically at your kids’ eye level (location matters!); &
Keep preferred foods in ready-to-go, clear containers – kids are visual just like we are.
Kids cannot be expected to make healthy choices most of the time if most of the choices that they have aren’t healthy. Set them up for success with a much larger ratio of the healthy stuff, just like you would your own nutrition.
Create some pride in that pantry! At the same time, place a set limit on how many treats you’ll keep each week. Manage expectations for all by letting your children know how much and when those supplies will be replenished. In doing so, you’ll encourage them to snack thoughtfully (or will be a lesson learned in time).
Frequency of Treats
Once you’ve upgraded the types of foods you stock at home, next up involves the frequency. Answer honestly, have the snacks in your house been replaced by treats? In her article, “Kids & Treats: How Much Is Too Much?” Dr. Jennifer Cohen, named “The Fussy Eating Doctor,” instead refers to treat foods as “discretionary foods.”
“Discretionary foods, are those foods that have too much added saturated fat, sugar, salt, or energy and do not give any extra nutrients. Discretionary foods include soft drinks, [candy], chips, [cookies], processed meats etc.”
Think of discretionary foods similar to the spending cash you keep in your wallets; it is a finite amount and intended to be spent carefully and thoughtfully. It’s an analogy that many, no matter what our age, can easily comprehend.
So, what is THE ratio? It doesn’t have to be complicated. My suggestion is 80% clean foods, and 20% discretionary foods when not in a “work” or weight loss phase. As we promote “80/20” in a balanced lifestyle, your kids will not suffer with those ratios, either! You’ll need to consider where that 20% is happening – from school lunches to sleepovers to sports events – but it’s reasonable, and their bodies have an incredibly intuitive way of making the most of that 80%.
What You Don’t Say Matters More
Don’t just tell them, show them. First and foremost, this show-and-tell involves what you are doing with your own nutrition: your meal prep, how you shop, when you eat snacks, how you approach restaurant meals, and what you say about yourself in front of them. They see what you do more than they comment, in most cases. And they connect the dots.
What else can you demonstrate besides your own connection with intake, energy, and physical health? Take them grocery shopping; allow them to choose new fruits and vegetables. Help them create a healthier version of a restaurant meal they like. Read nutrition labels with them to decipher the “why” versus the “just because.” Kids tend to reason well and will surprise you with the “new dots” they learn to connect.
The Main Math Lesson to Avoid
When it comes to small children through young teens, avoid counting calories!! After working with hundreds of parents specifically on how to improve their family’s overall nutrition, I can safely say that encouraging a young child or teen to count calories will fast forward them towards unhealthy eating patterns and relationships with food than improving their choices.
What you can do instead: focus on each instance in which they make the healthier choice. And praise the heck out of them. If you feel that you’re giving them 100 compliments to every one time you correct their food options, you’re exactly where you need to be; they’ll also be 100 times more receptive to your feedback in the process.
Instead, as mentioned above, focus on the 80/20 principle. In our house, we shifted to more of an “if-then” strategy. “If you eat your fruits and vegetables, then you can have a food of your choice.”
What happened with AJ was similar to exactly what happened with my own nutrition when I chose a healthier path: certain “treat” foods lost their appeal as I started to appreciate the taste of clean, healthy foods. And certain ones didn’t: he still loved Oreo cookies, Pop Tarts, and Kit Kats. So yes, here I am, the health coach, telling you that I kept those things in our house for him. But it wasn’t a free-for-all, and those packages only got opened after he’d had fruits and/or vegetables with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
I’m pleased to say that he grew up with a sense of moderation with his nutrition rather than one of extremes. It was balanced, workable, and ultimately successful. How did I know? I caught him talking with a hockey teammate in high school before I led a nutrition presentation for his travel hockey team. His teammate was talking about his “high protein pancake breakfast.” “Dude,” he said, “Do you even know what protein is??”
So, parents, go on…rock that role as The Enforcer. And that is the ultimate service you will do for your children when raising them with a healthy relationship with food.
Coach Jodi Sheakley-Wright, PhD, is one of the lead behavioral coaches at KK Wellness Consulting. She has also achieved pro status as a natural bodybuilder and is a living kidney donor. She has worked with hundreds of families, including those involves in travel athletics.
If you are interested in support with revising your family’s nutrition, order a phone or video consult at https://form.jotform.com/8227048067315. Or, if you’re exploring more intensive family nutrition coaching, please visit https://www.kkwellnessconsulting.com/freeconsult.